Story: Regional cultural life

Page 1. Early regional arts and culture

All images & media in this story

Iwi regional cultures

The cultural life of 19th-century Māori varied for iwi and hapū living in different parts of the country. Cultural practices such as weaving, carving and singing waiata were diverse in form, reflecting local traditions, histories and landscapes. Whakairo (carving) reflected distinct whakapapa (genealogy). Some regional distinctions of style can also be observed. A ‘serpentine’ style is associated with northern iwi such as Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi and Te Roroa, while eastern iwi such as Ngāti Porou were known for square-style carvings.

Good timing

When teacher and musician Charles Merton arrived at Lyttelton in December 1856, after a journey of over three months, ‘his face brightened up upon being told we had a Choral Society, and that he was just in time for a concert’.1

Some iwi adopted Western artistic techniques. For instance, the whare of Rongopai, at Waituhi near Gisborne, was decorated with paint rather than carved. The painted houses are a significant feature of the region.

Colonial cultural life

There were strong cultural similarities between the early European settlements of New Zealand because settlers based their townships on those of the United Kingdom. Cultural institutions were established in different regions almost simultaneously. Between 1852 and 1863 Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin set up choral societies and vocal unions. By 1868 all had museums; by 1893 all had public libraries.

Dunedin’s cultural riches

There were, however, regional distinctions built on the nature of the settlers and local conditions. With Scots settlers bringing strong educational and cultural traditions, and with wealth from gold, Dunedin was the most vibrant of the colony’s cities in the later 19th century. As returns from the gold rushes declined, the city explored new ways to promote itself.

  • The 1865 New Zealand Exhibition, the first held in the country, attracted many visitors and attention.
  • The University of Otago was founded in 1869 in an attempt to cement Dunedin’s cultural eminence (and perhaps increase its cash flow).

Dunedin was home to several important writers and poets like Thomas Bracken, John Barr and Vincent Pyke. Dunedin professionals such as Thomas Morland Hocken, a physician, and William Mathew Hodgkins, a lawyer, helped develop the city’s cultural life. Hocken built up collections of Pacific and Māori ethnography, which went to the museum in 1891. He collected published works, photographs and paintings, which were the basis of the Hocken Library (established in 1910). Hocken also wrote and lectured keenly on New Zealand’s early European settler history.

Hodgkins established the Otago Arts Society in 1875, and in 1884 founded the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. His circle included notable painters such as the Italian Girolamo Nerli, George O'Brien and Grace Joel, as well as his own daughters, Isabel Jane Field and Frances Hodgkins.

Storm chaser

Leonard H. Booth, a pupil of Petrus van der Velden, recalled the artist’s working methods: ‘When I was last at Otira, a resident of the place who remembered van der Velden told me that the Dutchman was evidently quite mad. Evidently? Yes; because at all those times when the thunder rolled, and wind howled, and rain poured, van der Velden would go into the Gorge, whereas all those times when the sun shone from a cloudless sky, he would lie with his back to the grass near the hotel and sleep.’2

Canterbury: a class act

In Canterbury, largely settled by the English, brass bands and music-hall acts were popular among the working class. Some of the city’s Oxford- and Cambridge-educated Anglican elite brought Gothic revival architecture and choral music. Architects such as Benjamin Woolfield Mountford designed special chancels (the part of the church near the altar) for motet-singing and psalm-chanting. Mass choral singing was highly popular. By the 1920s the Christchurch Musical Society had received a royal charter, and the rival choir, the Harmonic Society, was also highly regarded.

Significant individuals

In the fine arts, key figures - trained in Europe – influenced other artists in their regions.

  • Scotsman James Nairn arrived in Wellington in 1890, and taught at the Wellington Technical School. He led a breakaway group from the New Zealand Academy who were interested in open-air painting in an impressionist style. Nairn’s summer house in Silverstream, Pumpkin Cottage, became a meeting place for a group which included painters like Nugent Welch and Fred Sedgwick.
  • In Auckland Edward Friström, a Swede who painted in post-impressionist and symbolist styles – radical for the time – taught at the Elam School of Art and Design from 1911. He was so popular that students protested his forced resignation in 1915, and formed a breakaway class with Friström as their mentor.
  • In Canterbury Scottish marine painter John Gibb and Dutchman Petrus van der Velden painted the region’s dramatic landscapes. Van der Velden’s moody depictions of Ōtira were particularly influential.
  1. Quoted in Graeme Dunstall and J. E. Cookson, Southern capital: Christchurch: towards a city biography, 1850–2000. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2000, pp. 302–303. Back
  2. Quoted in 'Otira Gorge by Petrus van der Velden.' NZHistory. (last accessed 26 June 2014). Back
How to cite this page:

Pip Howells, 'Regional cultural life - Early regional arts and culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Pip Howells, published 22 Oct 2014